Primary Sources: Dolley Madison’s Letter to Her Sister About the Burning of the White House
• The Legend of Dolley Madison
• Understanding the Legend Using Multiple Sources
• Insight from the White House Historical Association
• First Lady Dolley Madison’s Letter to Her Sister
• Read More
• Discussion Questions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
• Activity Suggestions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
• Reference Sources
The Legend of Dolley Madison
As the grand dame of Washington society for more than two decades, the vivacious Dolley Madison was exalted by many in the early nineteenth century as “Lady Presidentress.” Graced with a warm, friendly demeanor and a natural instinct for skillful entertaining, Dolley’s years as first lady made her a legend. Yet Dolley is not only remembered for her social skills. She is also celebrated for having saved priceless White House artifacts from the White House before they were destroyed by British troops during the War of 1812. Though others pleaded with her to leave the executive mansion immediately when the sounds of battle approached, Dolley insisted on gathering what she could—her husband’s letters, the national seal, and the portrait of George Washington. Or so the legend goes. Just what happened that day on August 24, 1814, in the frightful hours before the British troops burned down the White House?
Dolley wrote in a letter to her sister: “I insist on waiting until the large picture of Gen. Washington is secured, and it requires to be unscrewed from the wall. This process was found too tedious for these perilous moments; I have ordered the frame to be broken, and the canvass taken out it is done, and the precious portrait placed in the hands of two gentlemen of New York, for safe keeping.”
Although Dolley states that she supervised the removal of Washington’s portrait, other stories suggest that Dolley actually removed the portrait herself. President Madison’s personal servant Paul Jennings, who was at the White House with Dolley the day the British arrived, insists in his own memoirs that stories crediting Dolley with the rescue of the portrait are untrue. According to Jennings, “It has often been stated in print, that when Mrs. Madison escaped from the White House, she cut out from the frame the large portrait of Washington (now in one of the parlors there), and carried it off. This is totally false. She had no time for doing it. It would have required a ladder to get it down. All she carried off was the silver in her reticule, as the British were thought to be but a few squares off, and were expected every moment. John Susé (a Frenchman, then door-keeper, and still living) and Magraw, the President’s gardener, took it down and sent it off on a wagon, with some large silver urns and such other valuables as could be hastily got hold of.”
Understanding the Legend Using Multiple Sources
Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out includes several illustrations and literary pieces that focus on the War of 1812, such as Wendell Minor’s stunning painting of the early White House engulfed in flames, Ralph Ketcham’s discussion of President Madison’s struggle to preserve peace and national dignity, and Susan Cooper’s poignant letter imagined from the perspective of a British soldier. Careful reading of the War of 1812 material in Our White House will reveal that some of it actually contradicts itself. This is by design. Both the Our White House book and website purposely juxtapose contradictory primary and secondary historical sources so that young people can experience what historians often discover in their search for objective truth—that multiple points of view provide various perspectives and contradictory material. So, Our White House readers will find not only Paul Jennings’ side of the story in an excerpt from his memoirs, but also Don Brown’s take on the legend executed in watercolor and accompanying story titled “Dolley Madison Rescues George Washington.” Completing the section about the War of 1812 is Meg Cabot’s time-slip narrative, “Another All-American Girl.”
So that young people can gain an even wider perspective, we have included below the complete and exact text of a letter written by First Lady Dolley Madison. Although the letter reads as if Dolley wrote it contemporaneously to the events described, historians believe that the formal tone of this particular letter suggests that Dolley rewrote its content in the years after the war knowing that it would be published and serve as an historical account.
Insight from the White House Historical Association
The White House Historical Association includes the following information on its website, WhiteHouseHistory.org, in the lesson plan titled “Saving History: Dolley Madison, the White House and the War of 1812.”
“The extract of the letter Dolley Madison wrote to her sister describing the events leading up to her White House escape is dated August 23 and 24, 1814. Because the richly detailed letter is unique as a record of these critical events and was written by one of the few White House witnesses present, historians have used the contents of the letter over and over again in their histories of the period and in biographies of Dolley Madison. Recent research by historian David Mattern, who is also an editor of James Madison’s papers, revealed some interesting findings. He explains that the original letter does not exist. What historians use is a transcript or extracts of the letter that Dolley Madison copied from a book, The National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans, published in Philadelphia, 1837-1846. Twenty years after the White House burned, Mrs. Madison was asked to select some letters from the past to be published in this book. The letter to her sister was the only one selected to be printed. At some point in time, Mrs. Madison then copied it out of the book in her own handwriting. This transcription is the only record of the letter in her handwriting.
“Although the letter begins with, ‘Dear Sister,’ there is no indication which sister she meant: Lucy Todd Washington or Anna Cutts. It was customary to make a handwritten copy of a letter for the record before you mailed the original; in her haste, Mrs. Madison probably did not. Therefore, she would have had to retrieve the letter from her sister in order to send it to the publisher. Because sister Anna lived near Dolley, and it would be convenient to retrieve the letter, it is thought that Anna was the recipient. (It was not at all unusual to keep letters for long periods).
“While Mrs. Madison regularly corresponded with friends and family, this particular letter differs in its tone and formality. She provides details that do not seem to be necessary to add, if she were simply writing to her sister. Did she re-write it later, for a broader audience? What is not in question, however, is the accuracy of the information. Another Madison letter written to Mary Latrobe, December 3, 1814, does not contradict the details.”
First Lady Dolley Madison’s Letter to Her Sister
Extract from a letter to my Sister published in the sketch of my life written for the “National Portrait Gallery.”
Tuesday Augt. 23d. 1814.
My husband left me yesterday morng. to join Gen. Winder. He enquired anxiously whether I had courage, or firmness to remain in the President’s house until his return, on the morrow, or succeeding day, and on my assurance that I had no fear but for him and the success of our army, he left me, beseeching me to take care of myself, and of the cabinet papers, public and private. I have since recd. two despatches from him, written with a pencil; the last is alarming, because he desires I should be ready at a moment’s warning to enter my carriage and leave the city; that the enemy seemed stronger than had been reported, and that it might happen that they would reach the city, with intention to destroy it. . . . I am accordingly ready; I have pressed as many cabinet papers into trunks as to fill one carriage; our private property must be sacrificed, as it is impossible to procure wagons for its transportation. I am determined not to go myself until I see Mr Madison safe, and he can accompany me, as I hear of much hostility towards him, . . . disaffection stalks around us. . . . My friends and acquaintances are all gone; Even Col. C with his hundred men, who were stationed as a guard in the enclosure . . . . French John (a faithful domestic,) with his usual activity and resolution, offers to spike the cannon at the gate, and to lay a train of powder which would blow up the British, should they enter the house. To the last proposition I positively object, without being able, however, to make him understand why all advantages in war may not be taken.
Wednesday morng., twelve o’clock. Since sunrise I have been turning my spyglass in every direction and watching with unwearied anxiety, hoping to discern the approach of my dear husband and his friends, but, alas, I can descry only groups of military wandering in all directions, as if there was a lack of arms, or of spirit to fight for their own firesides!
Three O’clock. Will you believe it, my Sister? We have had a battle or skirmish near Bladensburg, and I am still here within sound of the cannon! Mr. Madison comes not; may God protect him! Two messengers covered with dust, come to bid me fly; but I wait for him. . . . At this late hour a wagon has been procured, I have had it filled with the plate and most valuable portable articles belonging to the house; whether it will reach its destination; the Bank of Maryland, or fall into the hands of British soldiery, events must determine.
Our kind friend, Mr. Carroll, has come to hasten my departure, and is in a very bad humor with me because I insist on waiting until the large picture of Gen. Washington is secured, and it requires to be unscrewed from the wall. This process was found too tedious for these perilous moments; I have ordered the frame to be broken, and the canvass taken out it is done, and the precious portrait placed in the hands of two gentlemen of New York, for safe keeping. And now, dear sister, I must leave this house, or the retreating army will make me a prisoner in it, by filling up the road I am directed to take. When I shall again write you, or where I shall be tomorrow, I cannot tell!!
Editor’s Note: The letter was not signed.
- An online version of Paul Jennings’ memoirs, A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison, and digital images of his original book, are included on the Documenting the American South website.
- “The Life, Letters, and Legacy of Dolley Payne Madison” on the Virginia Center for Digital History website includes letters, drawings, maps, and more.
- Biographical information, as well as research resources, regarding both James and Dolley Madison are available on the Montpelier website.
- The article “A First Lady Flees to the Sanctuary of Dumbarton House” on the Dumbarton House website provides information about Dolley Madison’s flight from the White House.
- Information about manuscripts for Dolley Madison is provided on the National First Ladies’ Library website.
- A lesson plan including information on Dolley Madison titled “Remember the Ladies: The First Ladies” is available on the NEH EDSITEment! website.
- Additional primary sources regarding the War of 1812 are included in the Our White House article “Primary Sources: The War of 1812.”
Discussion Questions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
- Put yourself in Dolley Madison’s shoes, and think about what you might do in similar circumstances. Would you stay at the White House with the sounds of battle approaching? Or, would you leave as soon as possible? Why? Was it right for Dolley to risk her safety in order to save physical objects? Do you think of Dolley as a hero?
- Dolley Madison’s letter to her sister begins by stating that her husband “enquired anxiously whether I had courage, or firmness to remain in the President’s house until his return.” Scholars suggest that Dolley’s letter is all about courage and defiance—not just her own, but that of the young nation fighting to maintain its independence. Find other instances throughout the letter that exhibit Dolley’s defiant tone.
- We know that Dolley most likely rewrote this letter in the years after the war. What do you think she intended for future readers to believe about her actions? Do you believe it was appropriate for Dolley to rewrite her original letter before it was published? Why or why not?
- Is Dolley’s letter important to our understanding of these events? Why or why not?
- A legend typically relates the adventures of a human cultural hero. Legends sometimes exaggerate the hero’s actions, but they are usually based on historical fact. Would you consider the story of Dolley Madison’s actions to save items from the White House to be a legend? Why or why not? Can you think of other stories of American heroes that are considered to be legends?
Activity Suggestions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
- Read Paul Jennings’ memoir in Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out or on the Documenting the American South website. Compare and contrast the tone and content of Jennings’ memoir and Dolley’s letter. Do the two pieces support each other? Do they provide opposing views? What is different and the same in both?
- Read either Don Brown’s “Dolley Madison Rescues George Washington” or Meg Cabot’s “Another All-American Girl” in Our White House. How do the events described in Jennings’ memoir and Dolley’s letter compare to the events that are portrayed in Brown’s or Cabot’s stories? What parts of Brown’s or Cabot’s stories vary from the primary sources? Who is the hero in Brown’s and Cabot’s stories? Do you believe Brown and Cabot portrayed the story accurately enough? Why or why not?
Mattern, David B. “Dolley Madison Has the Last Word: The Famous Letter.” White House History, Fall 1998.
“A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison: Electronic Edition.” 4 March 2009.
©2016 The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance